Supreme Court

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Police need a warrant to look through a suspect’s cellphone during arrests, the Supreme Court said Wednesday, in a unanimous decision that represents a significant victory for privacy advocates.

The justices said that cellphones are different from other property that might be found on a suspect because the devices are so ubiquitous and contain so much personal information.

The justices were ruling on two cases from California and Massachusetts, where suspects under arrest for suspected drug possession or car registration violations had their cellphones searched during the arrest. Local prosecutors used information found on the phones during those searches to make far more significant cases against the two suspects, namely drug trafficking and attempted murder.

Police can generally search a person under arrest for whatever he has on his person and preserve that evidence for prosecutors. The court found, however, that since modern cellphones can hold so much digital information about a person – email, text messages, photographs – they enjoy more constitutional protections than other things typically found on someone, like a packet of cigarettes or a wallet.

There’s no reason law enforcement can’t search a suspect’s phone, the court said; they just need to get a warrant first.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals.”

“Privacy comes at a cost,” he wrote.

The court’s unanimous decision in this case helps provide some clarity on where privacy standards rest, given the court’s somewhat haphazard decisions over the past few years on privacy cases.

Last year, the court ruled 5-4 that law enforcement could take DNA samples from people under arrest without a warrant (or the belief that the suspect was linked to a specific crime). But in 2012 the court unanimously held that police can’t secretly install a GPS tracker on a suspect’s car without warrant.

The court’s decision Wednesday also raises interesting questions about how the justices could ultimately rule on the U.S. intelligence community’s surveillance of Americans under the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program. Lower courts have disagreed on the legality of that surveillance and the issue is expected to eventually reach the high court.